Our national dependency on the automobile has contributed to air pollution, the national trade imbalance, inflations, the deaths of 50,000 Americans annually, disabling injuries to millions more, and billions of dollars annually in lost wages and medical expenses. It also destroyed a mass transit system that was relatively clean, energy efficient, reliable and low-cost.
Americans long-running love affair with the automobile was not arranged in heaven. Rather, it was cold-bloodedly arranged in Detroit, Michigan. It was a massive criminal corporate conspiracy that directed our national transportation policy away from mass transit and into the automobile.
Some of the biggest corporations in the country conspired from the mid-1930s through the 1940s. Electrified-rail mass-transit systems, which carried millions of riders, were bought and junked. Tracks literally were torn out of the ground, sometimes overnight. Overhead power lines were dismantled and valuable off-street rights of way were sold. Transit officials who remember the earlier systems say, if left intact, they could have formed the nucleus for a modern American transit system.
The conspirators, led by General Motors, included Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Manufacturing, Firestone Tire & Rubber, and others. In a little-remembered trial in Chicago, in 1949, they were convicted of criminal antitrust violations for their part in the demise of mass transit. Guilty corporations were fined up to $5000 each while individuals paid fines of exactly $1 each.
This extraordinary conspiracy, from which we are still suffering, was revealed by investigative writer Jonathan Kwitny based on his review of the original trial transcripts, other evidence from the case, and personal interviews.
The story is dated which possibly explains why the media didn’t widely publicize it. However, the case clearly demonstrates what happens when important matters of public policy are abandoned by government to the self-interest of corporations. What was good for General Motors was not good for the country. Wider exposure of the story might have helped us learn from the past and be more aware of how current corporate interests may be manipulating national policy such as in the energy field.
Harper’s Magazine, 2/81, “The Great Transportation Conspiracy by Jonathan Kwitny.
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